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‘Carving up my country’: Land clearing reignites fracking debate in Western Australia

  • A recent data analysis shows that a single energy company has cleared 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) of vegetation for roads in the Kimberley, the northernmost part of Western Australia, Australia’s largest state, for fracking and mining exploration.
  • The exploration occurred on First Nations’ territory, including those of the Yawuru people, recognized as “Traditional Owners” for their cultural associations with the land.
  • Despite years of talk from government departments and industry, there is still no certainty about the rights of Traditional Owners to approve or veto such developments.
  • Conservationists also warn this fracking exploration will enable the spread of feral cats who prey on native and endangered animals, one of Australia’s most pressing biodiversity issues.

BROOME, Australia — A cool breeze blows through the savanna country east of Broome, a small town on the far north coast of Western Australia, Australia’s largest state. This time of year is known as Barrgana by the Yawuru, a First Nations people whose ancestral lands lie here in the Kimberley region. Encompassing an area the size of California with a total population of just 40,000, the Kimberley is internationally renowned for its largely intact natural landscapes and for being home to the oldest continuous culture in the world.

However, times are changing. Among the jigal (Bauhinia cunninghamii) and lirrirnggin or soap wattle (Acacia colei) trees, lines of cleared ground crisscross the landscape in an unworldly pattern. These tracks have been formed by exploration crews as they search for oil and gas reserves through seismic testing, a process linked to hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as “fracking” — an unconventional mining process that involves injecting a high-pressure fluid of sand, water and chemicals into a drilled well to crack the rock and free natural gas from deep underground.

“Mining companies can come in here and carve up my country, and I can’t access it. The damage done to it lasts for years,” said Micklo Corpus, a member of the Yawuru who is recognized as a “Traditional Owner” under Australian law. As such, he, and other members of the community, have certain rights to land and waters, as well as a responsibility to protect, promote and sustain them. Corpus has for years protested against fracking and said he’s worried about the ongoing effects of clearing.

“People are always concerned about the damage fracking causes below the soil, to our aquifers and water supplies. They never talk about the environmental damage done on top as well,” he added. “It needs to stop.”

Seismic clearing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Image courtesy of Damian Kelly Photography.

In November 2018, Mongabay reported on the advent of fracking in the west Kimberley and the local Yawuru people’s overwhelming opposition to the exploitation of their ancestral lands, which sit on the Canning Basin, the largest shale gas reserve on the Australian landmass. We also reported the community’s concerns around the operations of Australian energy company Buru Energy, with allegations of gas leaks and water contamination due to overflow from mining pads.

Fracking has now re-emerged as a political issue partly because Australia’s federal government has identified gas production as central to the country’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery. However, fracking expansion remains in question after the Western Australia state government announced it is considering enacting legislation to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, following critical revelations in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

These concerns have also extended into the private sector. Andrew Forrest, mining magnate and one of Australia’s richest people, reportedly abandoned fracking interests in the Kimberley this week. Forrest’s company, Squadron Energy, called it a strategic decision given that fracking is at odds with the organization’s climate policy.

Consequently, the issue of fracking in the Kimberley — and the environmental effects of the process both above and below its red soil — is shaping up to be one of Australia’s next key environmental battlegrounds.

In May this year, the Lock the Gate Alliance (LTGA), a national conservation organization that advocates against inappropriate mining, published an analysis collated from data held by the Western Australia state government’s Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS). It revealed that crews employed by Buru Energy undertook seismic testing over some 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) in the west Kimberley between 2009 and 2015, in the process clearing masses of vegetation in the savanna country east of Broome.

This, LTGA says, is “the equivalent distance from London to Perth,” the capital of Western Australia.

Crews employed by Buru Energy undertook seismic testing over some 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) in the west Kimberley between 2009 and 2015, in the process clearing masses of vegetation in the savanna country east of Broome. Image by Nick Rodway.

While the company has not undertaken any testing since 2015, Buru Energy announced plans in March for a further 1,200 km (750 mi) of seismic tests this year. While this year’s exploration has been flagged for exclusively oil exploration and not for future fracking operations, the process is expected to involve more land clearing in a region that contains the most intact tropical savanna in the world.

Eric Streitberg, Buru Energy’s executive chairman, confirmed to Mongabay that the company had conducted 14,618 km (9,083 mi) of seismic surveys in the west Kimberley, but said it was important to note that “the acquisition of seismic data does not always entail clearing vegetation for lines and data is acquired from existing tracks wherever possible.”

Seismic testing, he said “does not involve ‘clearing’ in the sense of removing vegetation down to bare mineral earth, but is a process of using a raised blade to facilitate passage of light vehicles whilst retaining rootstock and where possible surface vegetation.”

Streitberg said that these seismic lines should be more accurately described as “access ways” that are temporary and typically allow the vegetation to regrow “in two to four years.”

However, this is disputed by Claire McKinnon, the Western Australia state coordinator for LTGA who helped collate the data. She told Mongabay that seismic lines are still visible across the Kimberley landscape after being cleared “decades ago.”

“Buru Energy’s seismic exploration activity has destroyed significant areas of land across the Kimberley in a grid fashion making it easier for feral predators to kill threatened species and vulnerable animals,” she said.

Brett Murphy, an ecologist at Charles Darwin University and part of the Tropical Savanna Ecology Group, echoed McKinnon’s concerns, telling Mongabay that the most ecologically significant issue related to seismic testing in the Kimberley is that it encourages the movement of feral cats (Felis catus), one of northern Australia’s most pressing biodiversity conservation issues. It’s been estimated that feral cats kill more than 1.5 billion native animals in Australia each year. Those species in the Kimberley at particular risk include the vulnerable greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), a burrowing marsupial.

“Predation by cats is driving the rapid, ongoing decline of a wide range of native mammals in the tropical savannas,” Murphy said. “Cats prefer to hunt along ecotones between open habitats such as tracks, and closed habitats such as native vegetation. Creating a dense network of tracks throughout the landscape is great for cats and is likely to significantly boost their populations, which is really bad news for native mammals and other wildlife preyed upon by cats. Unfortunately, this indirect impact of clearing receives little attention from regulators.”

Experts say that seismic testing in the Kimberley encourages the movement of feral cats. Several native species like the vulnerable greater bilby are at risk of being killed by feral cats. Image by Bernard DUPONT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Fracking has generated controversy in many parts of the world, especially the United States, where it has sparked a number of environmental battles. In Australia, it has been banned by the state government of Victoria.

In Western Australia, community concerns about environmental risk led the state government to impose a moratorium on the process in 2016. Following an independent inquiry, the state lifted the moratorium in 2018, allowing fracking in 2% of Western Australia; much of that area falls in the west Kimberley.

The Western Australia state government also announced stringent conditions on any fracking developments, including the unprecedented move to allow Traditional Owners the right to veto oil and gas projects on their land.

This is a right not currently enshrined in Australian law. The Native Title Act, Australia’s key piece of land rights legislation, only grants First Nations’ communities the right to negotiate with mining companies, not the ability to actually veto industrial development.

Almost three years on and this still remains a gray area for all parties, as the government has not yet moved to enshrine the right of veto into state legislation.

While two Traditional Owner groups in the Kimberley have entered into fracking agreements with energy companies in recent years, others across the vast region remain strongly opposed. On July 17, more than 2,000 people turned up for a protest concert in Broome to hear Traditional Owners demand the right of veto as was promised.

When Mongabay asked Buru Energy whether it would commit to honoring the wishes of Traditional Owners who have voted against fracking on their lands, Streitberg said the company “would not be in a position to obtain all necessary approvals for hydraulic fracturing unless agreement was also in place with the relevant native title group.”

In July this year, over 2,000 people turned up for a protest concert in Broome to hear Traditional Owners demand the right of veto as was promised. Image by Damian Kelly.

Streitberg said the company has some community support, and collaborates with Traditional Owner monitors who are on site during seismic vegetation clearing activities “to ensure [there are] no impacts on culturally or environmentally sensitive areas.”

Standing amid the vegetation of his country, Micklo Corpus is unconvinced.

“I camped out on my country, protecting it for years and I did it because it gives us life,” he said. “I’m not going to give in. My country is too precious for that.”

Banner image of Micklo Corpus by Nick Rodway.